On family therapists who oppose using the DSM-5

Doctor discussing diagnosis with patientOkay, a bit of a rant today. In the family therapy world, I often hear criticism of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic guide published by the American Psychiatric Association and currently on its fifth edition (DSM-5). This usually comes from students first learning about the DSM and its history, and in those students the criticism is often based more on anxiety than on any real substantive problem with the book.

Students are understandably anxious when confronted with the complexity of diagnosis and the power that comes with being able to diagnose a client as mentally ill. Unfortunately, I see too many MFTs who never get past that initial anxiety, and use it as an excuse for avoiding the DSM well into their professional careers. I don’t begrudge anyone their anxiety, I just wish people would own it for what it is (kind of like with licensing exams), instead of making up or latching onto an easily-refuted argument against learning and using the DSM appropriately.

The arguments against DSM use that I hear in the MFT world tend to reflect poor understanding of both the DSM and family therapy. Those arguments typically fall into three groups, listed here with their easy counters:

  1. “The DSM is based on individuals, and I work with families.” The DSM offers labels for common sets of symptoms. That is, it gives you a quick name for sets of problematic behaviors that often occur together. It is agnostic about the source of those symptoms. It does not, contrary to some therapists’ opinions, make a presumption that the source of suffering lies within the individual. The way the DSM is written, depression could be caused by something within an individual, by problems in couple or family functioning, or by aliens. You’re free to maintain your systemic ideas about how depression often originates and is sustained (ideas I agree with, just so we’re clear) without any concern that these ideas conflict with the DSM. They don’t. Furthermore, a good systemic therapist does not ignore individual functioning; indeed, one needs to be keenly aware of how individuals are functioning within a system in order to understand the system itself.

  2. “A diagnosis is just a label, and I don’t like labeling people.” Nonsense. Any time you call someone by their name, you are using a label for them. Labeling is a good and healthy and awesome thing that we do in human societies to keep language relatively efficient. If you really hate labels, and prefer to capture the whole essence of things (many of those I have heard say they avoid the DSM say that they do so to better capture the “whole person”), then when you go home tonight I want you to announce to whomever is close by that for dinner you will be having semolina, flour, eggs, and water, all formed, cut into long needle shapes, and dried, and then resoftened in boiling water for a few minutes, topped with pulverized tomatoes that have themselves been heated and mixed with spices and possibly some kind of meat or cut mushrooms. Served steaming hot! Then you can take pride, when they tell you “um, that’s spaghetti,” that you have captured the entire essence of the pasta. You’ve also needlessly wasted everyone’s time.

    Listen, use of a label doesn’t constrain you to only using that label, nor does it mean the label is all there is of someone. I hope that when doing therapy, you really do maintain a thorough sense of your clients’ strengths and resources and personalities far beyond what you can gather from a simple diagnosis. But use the label too. It is essential for other health care providers, who may need to know the nature of someone’s symptoms very quickly (like in an emergency), that you know enough about symptoms and diagnoses that you can tell them, without taking the next 15 minutes to describe someone’s essence as a human being.

  3. “The DSM is pathologizing, and I try to focus in therapy on depathologizing behavior.” I have the most empathy for this argument, as family therapists are particularly inclined to see even diagnosable behaviors as adaptive to their context. But it still falls pretty flat. Yes, the DSM is pathologizing, insofar as it describes symptom clusters as mental disorders. Expanding criteria for mental illness contributes to what Szasz labels the medicalization of everyday life. And there is much to be said about the misuse of DSM diagnoses across cultures.

    But go back to the first argument here. Remember, the DSM is agnostic as to the source of symptoms. The fact that the behaviors that together add up to a diagnosis of, say, depression are actually adaptive responses to family dysfunction does not make the diagnostic label incorrect — the individual really is displaying those symptoms — and it doesn’t mean that the individual should not receive treatment. Indeed, one of the upsides of broadening diagnostic criteria is that they allow people to receive treatment, often paid for by their insurance company, when they previously could not have. In other words, that individual diagnostic label (which, again, is just a description for a symptom set, not a theory about the cause of the symptoms) is often the very thing that allows you to treat the system.

There are larger debates to be had about the role of the DSM in mental health care, and even more broadly, how our entire health care system is structured around diagnosis and dysfunction rather than a foundation of keeping people well. And there certainly is plenty to criticize about the DSM. But for where we are now, let’s all agree that (1) diagnosing is important enough that it’s okay to be anxious about it, and (2) the act of assessing and diagnosing an accordance with the DSM is in no way inconsistent with family systems work. In fact, it’s a requirement for doing that work well.

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There will never be a lab test for some mental health disorders

Because they aren’t really “disorders” when you consider the “symptoms” in context.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            


One of the first things any new student in family therapy learns about is the genius of the acting-out child. Children are keen observers of the world around them: If they learn that one kind of scream or cry or tantrum gets their parents’ attention where another kind does not, they are quick to do what works and give up on what doesn’t.

Children are also, for obvious reasons, incredibly observant of their parents’ relationship (whether to each other, or in blended or single-parent families, to the new partner). For kids, seeing their parents fighting can be utterly terrifying.

Some kids, in the midst of a parental argument, learn to stay out of the way. Other kids learn, even by accident, that a very good way to get the parents to stop arguing with each other is to break rules, scream, or otherwise behave inappropriately. Here is where acting out is so smart: if both parents get angry at the kid for misbehaving, at least they stop arguing with each other for a while.

For a child, the pain of having your parents angry at you may be far preferable to the terror experienced when watching them fight each other.

Of course, parents are often reluctant to see this. They may instead perceive such a child as “hard to handle,” “defiant,” or otherwise broken. In the worst cases, health care professionals buy into the parents’ descriptions, slapping diagnostic labels on the child. Labels like “attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder” or “oppositional defiant disorder” may accurately describe a child’s behavior, but they ignore the cause, and tend to focus attention on the child as the problem.

A skillful family therapist will assess not just the child but also the child’s entire social environment, including their family, to see whether the acting-out behavior is actually smart. If it is, then therapy focuses not on “curing” the acting out, but instead on making it no longer necessary. The family therapy field is rife with stories of children diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, childhood bipolar disorder, or other mental illnesses who are rapidly “cured” once their parents start coming in to therapy sessions — especially if the parents are willing to work on their relationship with each other.)

Of course, we don’t stop being impacted by our social worlds when we become adults. Just as the acting-out child is often behaving in a way that is quite smart given their environment, adults who appear to have mental illnesses may be responding intelligently to the world around them. This may mean their behavior is a response to the work environment, social circle, family, or even larger society. For example, William Glasser suggests that at least some of the higher prevalence of depression among women might actually be a wise response to the impossibly high demands placed on women to be successful at work, at home, and socially, always with a smile on. For women who experience that pressure intensely, and do not feel they have a reasonable way of escaping or easing it, depression can be a quite reasonable way of checking out of that chase without having to actively fight social norms. (For clarity, Glasser is not suggesting blaming the depressed for their depression; he does argue that depressive behaviors are sometimes chosen, but goes on to say these choices are often not conscious. Depression may be an adaptive response to difficult circumstances, Glasser says, but it certainly is not ideal.)

Ultimately, whether we are talking about children, adolescents, or adults, it is often true that behavior that might look troubling or even “ill” in one context is actually quite helpful in another. In fact, sometimes taking on behaviors that appear crazy to others is actually the smartest thing to do. It’s evidence of good health and adaptability, not an underlying problem with the brain or body that any lab test could detect.

That’s why, for as much as I support the National Institutes of Mental Health’s effort to usher in a new era of hard science in mental health diagnosis (and usher out the behavior-based diagnoses of the DSM-5), I wonder who it will leave out in the cold. The simple fact is that many people who now (appropriately!) receive diagnoses and are eligible for insurance-covered treatment for mental disorders are not, in any physiologically-testable way, disordered. They are actually quite healthy. Their behavior makes perfect sense when understood in context.

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